When London Became An Island

Now cross Colebrooke Row and you will see the entrance to the steepish path leading down to the towpath. Descend to the towpath, cast an eye over the east entrance to the tunnel and then walk by the boats which are sure to be moored there. Because of issues with the dispersal of fumes and smoke, this canyon-like section of the canal is under special restrictions. Between October 1st and April 1st no double mooring is allowed and limitations are placed on both the type of fuel to be burnt on boat stoves and on the amount of time generators should be run. As elsewhere many of the boats moored here are narrowboats. Much of the carrying on the Regents Canal was short distance work for which barges were used but narrowboats, designed to negotiate the Midland network are a common sight today. Nearly all are used for residential or leisure purposes. Just before you reach the next bridge you will be able to look back and see light at the other end of the tunnel (1).

Beyond the bridge you will arrive at City Road basin. In the 1820s Thomas Shepherd, a well-known topographical artist, published a series of pictures of the Regents Canal, one of which shows the City Road basin locks in a view which is still recognisable. Two hundred years ago the area was a 'green field' site that would have probably been developed for housing. However, the Regents Canal changed all that and after the opening, heralded by the firing of blank charges from artillery pieces, it went on to become the most important basin on the waterway, soon superseding Paddington. The main office of the company eventually moved here and shareholders (or proprietors or subscribers as they were then called) no doubt waited eagerly for the arrival of a copy of the annual Statement of Account to see how their investment was doing. Note the way in which the proprietors, in the covering letter, were urged to support the canal based coal trade (2). No smokeless fuel in the 1840s, of course.

Today, with industry gone, the basin carries a more leisurely air and is the venue for the annual Angel Canal Festival. The festival will return this year, although in a more diluted for than previously due to social distancing measures. The City Road end of the basin is now dominated by two tall apartment blocks but by the locks a café is a pleasant place to stop for a coffee and a little beyond is an area to sit and watch the towpath world go by at any time of year. On the adjacent wall you will see a plaque (3) erected to the memory of Crystal Hale, who worked hard to develop the basin as a facility for the use of young people. It remains the base of the Islington Boat Club and I am sure she would have been very pleased with a nearby quartet of mosaics. They were made by local children working with by artists and show different aspects of the canal. I found the one in photograph 4 particularly engaging.

Walking along the towpath a few years ago I noticed a group of volunteers from Thames 21 hard at work cleaning graffiti from the adjacent walls as the whole area was pleasantly developed as the Hanover School Towpath Garden. The ‘greening’ of the canal towpath has really come on in the past couple of years and contributions have been made by a number of groups and organisations.

Passing through this area in September 2019 I met Bob Chase on the Barge Fiodra (5), a cinema and art gallery. There are now an increasing number of boats selling various things or offering entertainment along the Regents Canal. Although none stay in one place for long, all help turn the towpath and the adjacent areas into something beyond a linear walk and commuter cycle track.

A short distance beyond the City Road basin is Wharf Road bridge and a pub, the Narrow Boat, that stands almost opposite Wenlock basin. A couple of years ago review of a new, shared ownership housing development overlooking the basin mentioned the fact that a downside was a lack of ‘immediate green space’ and that Victoria Park is the nearest substantial open space, even though it is two and a half miles away. The most direct route is, of course, along the towpath. Other attractions to the east are the Saturday Broadway Market and, on Sunday, both the Columbia Road flower market and the Victoria Park food market. Visiting the Angel Canal festival in September 2021 I happened to see the Duffy (6), a boat which brings its own green space wherever it moors!

At this point look out for what you might take, at first glance, to be a standard blue plaque (7) above another strip of towpath ‘greening’. The plaque is not standard, but a reminder that individuals, as well as organisations, have had an important role to play in maintaining the fabric of buildings in riparian areas and in keeping the towpath safe.

A short distance beyond Wenlock basin there is a pedestrian bridge over the canal and it is worth walking up to this to look downstream. On the southbank, the older white buildings comprise Holborn Studios , which is evidently Europe’s largest photographic studio complex. A campaign mounted to save the buildings from redevelopment had widespread support in which the Friends of the Regents Canal, a voluntary organisation that has supporters in each of the riparian boroughs, played a key role. The Friends of the Regents Canal constantly monitors planning permission applications and drums up support to oppose those it thinks are to the detriment of the immediate environment of the canal.

Returning to the towpath and walking on from the bridge we will soon reach Sturts lock and after passing that we will enter the London Borough of Hackney. Each borough through which the waterway passes has impressed itself on the canal in different ways and once over the border you will find immediate changes to canal side furniture. We say goodbye to the litter-bins of Islington with their little cast metal canal barges, but there are imaginative signs by Hackney bridges. Some (8) indicate the route ahead (I am not sure if the estimated walking times between bridges are realistic) and others draw attention to various aspects of canal history, topography and ecology.

As the canal curves round towards Rosemary Branch you will see a building with 'Rosemary Works' on the top peeping over a bridge parapet. This bridge, which is beyond a pipe arching over the canal, carries Bridport Place. I would suggest leaving the towpath at this point by the adjacent steps. At the top of the steps a poster reflecting the temper of the times (9) was on display during the first lockdown. Well, the days haven’t passed completely yet, but fingers crossed.


Kings Cross to Bethnal Green






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